Still we rise…and we are tired

Kia Lilly Caldwell is the vice provost for faculty affairs and diversity, professor of African and African American studies, and Dean’s Distinguished Professorial Scholar in Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Community as Rebellion”
Lorgia García Peña, Professor of Latinx Studies, Princeton University
4 pm, Wednesday, October 4, 2023
Washington University, Women’s Building Formal Lounge
Reception immediately to follow
In-person and online viewing available

Many of my Black women faculty colleagues are tired. I hear this sentiment repeatedly when I talk to colleagues from across the country. While openly speaking about fatigue is often taboo in academic spaces, the sense of burnout and devaluing of our contributions is real and runs deep among Black women faculty. This has been true for quite a while, and a decade or so ago several prominent Black women scholars died within a short time of one another. This was a wake-up call for many of us about the demands of academic life, as well the ways that un-wellness is often perpetuated in the academy. Sociologist Ruth Zambrana coined the term “Toxic Ivory Towers” to describe this phenomenon. The superwoman stereotype of Black women in our society and in the academy also discourages recognition of the extra service, work and burdens that Black women faculty often experience. The superwoman stereotype also strikes me as being very similar to the notion of rising against all odds and obstacles, though I doubt this is what Maya Angelou had in mind when she wrote her iconic poem “Still I Rise.” While Angelou’s poem was a tribute to Black women’s remarkable resilience, in today’s society, grit and resilience are expected from us, while care, concern and allyship are displayed toward us far less often.

My own experiences as a faculty member for nearly 25 years can attest to the demands — mentally, physically and psychically — that an academic career places on Black women. Research and personal testimonials have shown that other women of color often face similar demands and these largely owe to the intersectional dynamics of our lives within and outside of the academy. Before taking on my current role, I seriously considered whether to continue in an academic career. Having experienced many years of institutionalized racism at a former institution and being on the frontlines of pushing for institutional change had worn me down and tarnished my view of academic life. While academia affords many faculty, especially those with tenure, the opportunity to pursue scholarship and intellectual work that is gratifying and produces new knowledge, unfortunately, the contributions of women of color in academic spaces are often devalued, marginalized and erased. As the two-volume series Presumed Incompetent points out, these experiences foster the attrition of women of color from academia, beginning at the undergraduate level, and often take a toll on our mental and physical health…and we are tired

Shifting the academic landscape to one that brings Black women and other women of color from the margins to the center is critical to our collective future in this historical moment. 

Kia Lilly Caldwell’s research highlights how the relationship between race and gender shapes Black women’s experiences, as well as activism, in Brazil, the United States and other areas of the Americas.

So, what can be done about this situation? Lorgia García Peña’s important book Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color highlights the importance of being in community and fighting the “only one” syndrome, which is essentially internalized tokenism, as women of color. I absolutely agree with this; being in community has been a lifesaver for me at critical points in my career. But, it’s also not sufficient. We need systemic institutional change in higher education in order to ensure that Black women and other women of color have equitable experiences, whether we’re talking about hiring, promotion and tenure, grant and article reviews or departmental climates. This will also help to ensure that women of color not only survive in academia, but also thrive. For faculty and administrators from majority groups, including white women, women of color need you to be authentic allies and upstanders. What can you do to make policies and practices at your universities more equitable? How do your own behaviors and microaggressions impact women of color? 

Shifting the academic landscape to one that brings Black women and other women of color from the margins to the center is critical to our collective future in this historical moment. Making academic workplaces more welcoming to and equitable for women of color faculty will ultimately make our colleges and universities better overall. It will also help to make them more responsive to the needs of increasingly diverse student populations. May we all rise and thrive together.


Cover image: Jet Spared (2017) by Lorna Simpson, courtesy Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.